Spelunking in Mae Hong Son

The mountains of Mae Hong Son, an area of north eastern Thailand along the border with Myanmar, are famous for their secluded hill tribes, adventure hiking, and most importantly for us, hundreds of caves promising new opportunities for adventure. After our friends departed Chiang Mai, we therefore decided to make the Cave Lodge, a rustic mountain retreat and base camp for caving trips our next destination.

The three hour minivan ride through the windy roads up on our way to the Cave Lodge left us both tired and a bit queasy when we were dropped off at a dusty roadside bus stop in the nearby town of Sappong. The Cave Lodge is several kilometers out of town, a secluded retreat run by an Australian guy who had been living and exploring caves in the area for the last 30 years.

Like with learning to dive, our first day spelunking was another fantastic way for us both to be pushed outside our comfort zones. The day began with a bumpy ride in the back of a rusty pickup truck with three other visitors for the day's trip. After about 20 minutes down a desolate road, the Cave Lodge manager pulled over to a wooden gate at the side of the road, with nothing else in sight save a dusty trail and lush green mountains in all directions. He introduced us to Uncle Wat, our local guide, handed us each a bag of fried rice for lunch, said "see you in a few hours" and promptly drove off. 

Our guide, Uncle Wat, leads the way!

Our guide, Uncle Wat, leads the way!

The day's planned itinerary was to visit three caves, Fossil Cave, Waterfall Cave, and Christmas Cave. There were no lights or safety rails in any of the caves; instead, we scrambled in on our knees, hands, and butts and relied only on the lights we brought with us. We don't have any photos from these caves unfortunately - it would have been two hard to protect our camera with all the climbing and slipping. In each cave, Uncle Wat would highlight interesting formations, such as stalagmites shaped like mushrooms, stalactites that looked like oozing wax, places where water thousands of years ago made ripple formations in the rock, gigantic columns where stalactites and stalagmites were close to fusing, and ceilings of tiny stalactites each with a droplet of water suspended from the bottom that twinkled like gemstones when we shone our lights on them. There was also a surprising amount of wildlife including bats, snakes, and spiders the size of an outstretched human hand, the last of which made it a bit nerve wracking to be reaching for hand grips as we clambered between chambers. 

Of all the caves that first day, the most enjoyable and terrifying was Waterfall Cave. Waterfall Cave was a wet cave, and the visit inside took place in a very long, small tunnel. The entire time, we were either crouched low or crawling on all fours, splashing through the river flowing through the narrow bottom. At one point, we had to squeeze through a hole so tight that we had to wriggle through on our bellies, up to our nose in water. We both agreed later that we wouldn't have done it if we had been alerted ahead of time, but we felt invigorated from the adrenalin rush of having done it anyway.

Between each cave, we had long hikes through Thai farms and countryside. Despite a sardonic warning about the farmers from the hostel manager ("Try not to step on their adzuki beans, eh? They'll shoot you."), the most difficult part was the intense glare of the sun as we trudged, dripping in sweat and covered in mud, through hills and valleys. The first hike was especially difficult as the steep path was super muddy from the previous night's rain and was like trying to climb down a dirty slip-and-slide with sharp rocks everywhere. As the day wore on, however, the mud dried and we made our way through some stunning scenery. Many of the hills were covered in huge bushes of yellow daisies, and there were butterflies everywhere pollinating the local crops. Uncle Wat would stop here and there to pick a cherry tomato or crack open a passion fruit snatched from a nearby vine. 

Two days after our first spelunking adventure, we booked a kayak and caving day tour that took us through a much larger cave where we were able to capture the photos you see in this post. Between each of the three caves we kayaked through parts of the Thai jungle, pointing out exotic birds and enjoying the minor rapids. The day finished in a coffin cave (explanation pictured).

In total, we spent 4 nights and 3 days exploring Me Hong Son through the Cave Lodge. We came back sweaty, dirty, sunburned, and very proud of our caving conquests.